Writing to myself as a young boy has me revisiting long-forgotten memories. So I’ve decided to borrow another bit from my memoir to recall the awful day I was shipped off to boarding school at aged twelve – a rite of passage for many middle-class English boys. I’ll leave you to judge what lasting effects it has had on Great Britain’s heritage.
Mummy finishes paying the taxi cab as I heft my battered trunk onto the pavement outside Weston railway station. She buys our railway tickets—hers a return, mine one-way—for the 11-o’clock Cornish Riviera Express for Paddington. A few more precious moments before billowing balloons of steam and screeching brakes announce its arrival. We take involuntary leaps back before we hoist my trunk between us into a 3rd-class compartment. My father’s from his two London colleges, there are several readable address labels still affixed, including from University College’s men’s hostel and Barts medical school, the latter bearing its distinctive black-and-white crest.
The dread day, Friday, September 3rd, has arrived, and I’m on my first trip to London. By day’s end, I’ll be assigned a dormitory bed in Epsom College, my new boys-only boarding school. I stand the trunk on end in one corner as Mummy takes a seat on the opposite side, pulls out Mrs. Gaskell’s Cranford from her worn brown handbag and opens it at a well-thumbed page. As I hoist my tuck box onto the storage space above us, I take in her Sunday-best royal-blue dress with matching flower-feather fascinator, storing the image in my mind. She glances up with a smile, causing me to glance away to hide unlooked-for tears.
I welcome the ensuing silence, feeling the chasm opening between us. I’m barely holding on, and I couldn’t stand her sympathy, worse still small talk about nothing. I retreat to the corridor for a last sight of the poster exalting Weston’s seaside charms: Air Like Wine—a blond-haired knockout in turquoise bathing suit. I crane my head out the window, let the breeze sweep the unmanly mist from my eyes back towards my childhood haven.
I gulp down the last of my tomato and marmite sandwich as the guard announces our approach to Paddington.
“Don’t leave anything behind, John. You get out first so I can check.”
There’s no chance for even a glimpse at London’s theatres, galleries, and museums as we take the lift down to the tube platform and lug trunk and tuck box between us onto the Bakerloo Line. Jostled in a sea of urbane Londoners, I cling to a ceiling strap and mouth the station names: Edgware Road, Marylebone, Baker Street, Regent’s Park, Oxford Circus, Piccadilly Circus, Charing Cross, Embankment. And last, Waterloo—my Waterloo.
In a blur of porters and queues for more train tickets, we board the Southeast Suburban to Epsom. I’m painfully aware of my ill-fitting grey serge suit as I sight countless boys, identically garbed bar cap and tie color, greeting their old buddies. My trousers bag at knee and ankle, while my jacket is so tight it constricts my breath. My tuition is to be met by Epsom College’s Foundation, endowed for medical families fallen on hard times, so foundationers are last in line for uniforms. Yesterday, the postman delivered my ill-fitting suit, plus grey shirts (2), grey socks (2 prs.), cap, tie, belt (1 each: green-and-white house colors), and name tapes (1 pack: J.R.Graham-Pole). My vests and underpants come at Mummy’s expense, every item marked with its owner’s last name and initials.
We meet my new schoolmasters on the Big School lawn over the ordeal of cucumber sandwiches and tea in china cups. Mummy corners Mr. Berridge, my new housemaster, leaving me to run the gauntlet of handshaking down nameless teacher ranks. Examination results, father’s profession, family circumstances—nothing off-limits. I fix my eye on my shoes as I stumble forward, pausing for a furtive rub of each black lace-up shoe against its opposite trouser cuff. All at once, with the briefest peck on my cheek, Mummy is gone. I stare through the black wrought-iron gates as I wipe off lipstick traces. Boys’ voices jangle across the quadrangle, distant and alien.